Tag Archives: Zoltán Balog

Wakeup call: The PISA results reveal deep problems

The outcry over the PISA results is not subsiding. On the contrary. As more details surface, the magnitude of the problem is dawning on commentators. If almost 30% of Hungarian students at the age of 15 are functionally illiterate, it is difficult to imagine how the rosy future of the Orbán propaganda can ever be achieved.

The chief villain, of course, is silent. HVG asked the prime minister’s office for a response but was told to get in touch with Zoltán Balog’s ministry of human resources. Balog seemed to be in hiding. His undersecretary, László Palkovics, complained that this heartless OECD measures the performance of countries without taking into consideration local conditions, like his great efforts at a second wave of “reforms.” As Árpád W. Tóta, the witty political commentator, said, this problem can easily be remedied. Hungary should turn its back on the OECD just as it did today on the Open Government Partnership because it didn’t like the organization’s report on systemic corruption in Hungary over the last six years. Officials try to say as little as possible, but it seems that the party line is to whitewash the system they introduced and to blame the one-size-fits-all approach of PISA. Hungarian students have to take the same test as Japanese and German students, without any regard for the “Hungarian soul” and idiosyncratic “Hungarian thinking.” At least Viktor Orbán believes that Hungarian thinking is unique.

The consensus that has emerged in the last two days is that the cause of this drastic drop in performance is the reorganization of the educational system. The government set out to introduce a uniform system where all teachers teach the same material and thus all children end up with the same body of knowledge. Prior to the reform teachers could choose from a long list of textbooks. After the reform the choice was restricted to only two textbooks for each subject. If there had not been widespread protests, the government would have opted for only one. The old, favored textbooks were withdrawn and in record speed new texts appeared. In addition, the government decided that children need to work more and to acquire more factual knowledge. Even first-graders are required to stay in school until 4:00 p.m. Teachers, although they received raises, have to teach more classes and are forbidden to leave the building before 4:00 p.m. whether they have teaching duties or not. The result: overworked teachers, overworked students, and underperformance.

Some commentators are certain that the poor results are the consequence of too much teaching. A fair number of the many hours spent in school are frittered away on non-essentials. To appease the churches the government introduced religious instruction (or, alternatively, ethics classes). At least one hour a day is spent in physical education, which because of a lack of facilities often takes place in the corridors or consists of running up and down staircases. Since one of the undersecretaries in Balog’s ministry is a conductor and an expert on sacred music, even the crazy idea of daily singing came up at one point. Zoltán Balog was most enthusiastic. Wouldn’t it be splendid if these good Hungarian children would learn as many folk songs as possible? I don’t know what happened to this brilliant idea, but I hope it was dropped. Meanwhile, schools either don’t have any computers or, if they do, they are ancient and pretty useless. So it’s no wonder that students had difficulty answering the PISA test questions digitally.

Now let’s take a look at some of the details, which give us a fuller picture of the dreadful state of Hungarian education. In three years the number of students who haven’t reached even minimal reading competence has grown dramatically. These are the people whom we call functional illiterates. It is hard to believe, but 27.5% of 15-year-olds can’t figure out the meaning of quite simple texts. Six years ago only 17% of Hungarian students fell into this category. Hungary’s functional illiteracy rate is double that of Poland’s. That makes Hungary one of the poorest performers in the OECD countries, along with Mexico, Turkey, Greece, and Chile. Unfortunately, the situation is no better in the sciences, where 26% of the students performed under the minimum standards. Three years ago this was 18%. The situation is about the same in math as well. In brief, 18% of all Hungarian fifteen-year-olds underperformed not just in one subject but in all three.

You will write one hundred times: “Next time I will cram better for the PISA test” / Népszava , Gábor Pápai

According to Péter Radó, the foremost authority on education in Hungary today, if everything remains the same “Hungarian public education will produce 25,000 new functional illiterates yearly, in addition to about the same number who are deficient in math and science skills.” If one concentrates only on males, every third 15-year-old boy is functionally illiterate (31.9%).

Compare the 18% of Hungarian underperformers in all three areas with the Polish results, where only 8.3% fall into this category. Poland’s well thought-out educational reform has produced spectacular results. Long discussions among teachers, educational experts, students, and parents preceded the introduction of the Polish reform plan. In Hungary government officials talked to no one who would object to their retrograde plan and discussed it with only a small group of people with no expertise in education.

Let me add that the European Union as a whole is not doing as well as one would expect in the field of education, especially since it has a plan according to which by 2020 the proportion of students who perform under the minimum requirements must be reduced to 15%. As you can see on the following graph, the European Union’s results leave a great deal to be desired. It is unlikely that by 2020 it will achieve the desired result, especially if Hungary keeps adding to the already dismal figures.

Proportion of underachievers in Europe and Hungary in all three subjects

Among his many sins in the field of education Viktor Orbán set out to reduce the number of university graduates in Hungary. During the Kádár period only about 10% of the population had a higher degree. After 1990 successive Hungarian governments opened the doors of universities just like in other developed countries. As a result, enrollment soared, at least until Viktor Orbán decided that Hungary didn’t need so many university graduates. By exacting high tuition fees and decreasing the number of free places he managed to substantially reduce the number of students enrolled in Hungary’s colleges and universities.

Moreover, Orbán decided that among the high school population were some whose presence until the age of 18 was undesirable. The government therefore decreed that education was compulsory only to the age of 16. As a result, children of very poor families drop out of school as soon as possible in order to join the public workforce and help the family economically.  In the last couple of years Orbán also set out to decrease the number of academic high schools (gymnasiums) and to favor trade schools.

These moves, not without reason, raise the suspicion that Viktor Orbán wants to lower the educational attainment of Hungarians. The less educated can be more easily influenced and led. As Tóta said in his opinion piece today, Orbán managed to create a school system for sheep.

And he will undoubtedly continue along the same path unless someone stops him. For example, if the results of these tests rekindle teacher dissatisfaction. Lately, there have been signs that high school students, being perhaps foolishly brave, are standing up and even arguing with Zoltán Balog on matters of education. After all, their futures–and the future of the country–are at stake.

December 7, 2016

Learning? Secondary to being “a good Christian and a good Hungarian”

Before I begin today’s topic, János Lázár’s most unfortunate remarks about the goal of Hungarian education–to bring up good Christians and good Hungarians, let me return to the Habsburgs.

The Orbán government’s fascination with the House of Habsburg is not a new phenomenon, but in the last few years it has become more pronounced. Moreover, relations  between certain members of the Habsburg family and the Orbán government are excellent.

mezotur2

Let’s start with Otto von Habsburg or, as he was called in Hungary, Dr. Habsburg Ottó, whose archives will be deposited in the Royal Castle in Budapest. Although he was buried in Vienna with the rest of the Habsburgs, his heart was sent to Pannonhalma. His second son Georg (Habsburg György) and his family live in Hungary. Until 2012 he was president of the Hungarian Red Cross and he currently serves as one of the “traveling ambassadors,” promoting Hungary’s bid for the 2024 Olympic Games. He and his wife have three children, and the second girl was named Ildikó. How much more Hungarian can you get?

Great was the surprise when in July 2015 the Hungarian government named Eduard von Habsburg, an Austrian TV producer and scriptwriter, Hungarian ambassador to the Vatican. Eduard didn’t know any Hungarian at the time, but “he has been studying the Hungarian language intensively for the last year,” Hungary Today reported. His father Michael (Mihály) was born in Hungary, so Eduard is a bona fide Hungarian citizen.

The latest news on the Habsburg front is that the Hungarian government commissioned a bust of the last Hungarian king, Charles/Károly IV, who, since his beatification by the Catholic Church in 2004, has been known as Blessed Charles of Austria. As you can see from the photo, Zsolt Semjén thinks very highly of Charles both as a king and as a perhaps to-be saint.

karoly-kiraly

The above was just a footnote to yesterday’s post. My main topic today is a speech János Lázár gave at the opening of the Mezőtúr Reformed College’s refurbished “Old Library.” Perhaps in his eagerness to please his hosts, he declared that “the government believes that the most that can be given to students is to raise them as good Christians and good Hungarians.” He added that “everything beyond this is debatable and questionable” since we don’t know whether the acquired knowledge will stand the test of time in the next centuries.

The reaction of liberal commentators and leaders of the teachers’ unions was undisguised outrage. One of the bloggers of gepnarancs.hu pointed out that he always suspected that “a hidden curriculum existed” and now, thanks to the overly talkative Lázár, we have learned the truth. After all, ever since 2013 the number of parochial schools has multiplied and an incredible amount of public money has ended up in the hands of the favored churches, the Catholic and the Hungarian Reformed. But now it is no longer a secret. The Orbán government wants to entrust the churches with the education of future generations of Hungarian children.

Kolozsvári Szalonna, as usual, was even more outspoken. The blogger considers Lázár’s words a calamity. “I can’t imagine a more horrible thing than for a relatively young minister in the twenty-first century to say such immensely stupid and tragically frightening things. I get really scared when a sickly dictatorship and religion cling together trying to suffocate a whole country.” The Orbán government, in his opinion, fears nothing more than independent thinkers. Until now they have stolen everything material, now “they want to divide among themselves the education of our children and our rights to be believers or not.” The author is convinced that the “marriage of state and church results in defenselessness, poverty, ignorance, later dissatisfaction, blood, and tears.” His conclusion is that if the Hungarian people allow this nuptial “we will write ourselves out of Europe and the twenty-first century as well.”

Less emotional but still hard hitting was the reaction of the two teachers’ unions. The Pedagógusok Szakszervezete (PSZ) expressed its hope that since it was János Lázár and not Zoltán Balog, the minister responsible for education, who spoke, this unacceptable statement is merely Lázár’s personal opinion because no government can force its worldview on the whole nation. “It cannot be more than a private opinion because—as is clear from all the signed and declared international treaties—the state must honor the parents’ religious and ideological convictions.” The curriculum must be free of any ideological or religious bias. PSZ expects Zoltán Balog to clarify the government’s position on the matter.

László Mendrey, head of the Pedagógusok Demokratikus Szakszervezete (PDSZ), while emphasizing that no one should question the right of the churches to maintain schools, added that “they cannot attain supremacy.” In his opinion, Lázár’s ideas are unconstitutional and in conflict with the law on public education. “Lázár doesn’t realize who the most important persons are in education. We will help him: the children … For them, the most important consideration is not to be good Christians and good patriots. Rather, the goal is to acquire knowledge that will meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.”

I’m certain that this issue will not go away quickly. I wouldn’t expect any reassurance from Zoltán Balog who is, after all, a Protestant minister. He is also woefully ignorant of what education is all about, and his past interactions with children have shown him to be incapable of any meaningful exchange with young people. Moreover, what can one expect from a man in charge of education who announced the other day that he doesn’t believe in the notion of functional illiteracy because “if someone can read he also understands the text.”

I share the concerns expressed above by teachers and political commentators because I remember only too well the days when, because of the intertwining of state and church before 1948, education was entrusted mostly to the Catholic Church. More than half of the elementary schools were Catholic parochial schools while “an overwhelming majority” of gymnasiums and teachers’ colleges were also in the hands of the Catholic Church. Creating a secular school system was long overdue by 1948. It is another matter how the Stalinist regime of Mátyás Rákosi handled the nationalization of parochial schools. Yet I would find it unacceptable to return to the pre-1948 days in the twenty-first century.

November 28, 2016

The fate of Gergely Prőhle: From diplomat to museum director

At the end of August came the news that the new director-general of the Petőfi Irodalmi Múzeum (Petőfi Literary Museum) will be Gergely Prőhle, who is best known as a diplomat. He began his diplomatic career in 1998, and by 2000 he served as Hungary’s ambassador to Berlin. Fidesz’s loss of the election in 2002 didn’t put an end to Prőhle’s career. In 2003, during the Medgyessy administration, he was named ambassador to Switzerland. He left the diplomatic service only in 2006. The socialists were certainly nicer to him after 2002 than Péter Szijjártó was in 2014, who as the new minister of foreign affairs unceremoniously fired him from his job as assistant undersecretary in the foreign ministry, together with about 300 career diplomats who were not considered to be faithful enough servants of the Orbán regime. Prőhle, the father of four, was apparently desperate. His career was so closely intertwined with the Orbán regime that it was difficult to imagine what he could possibly do outside of this charmed circle.

But, as is well known, Orbán is good to those people who were once useful, faithful servants of his regime but who for one reason or another become outcasts. So, in the last minute, Prőhle was offered a job in the ministry of human resources as assistant undersecretary in charge of “international and European Union affairs.” It looks as if the position was created specifically for Prőhle. The ministry has two undersecretaries: the “administrative undersecretary,” who can be compared to Britain’s “permanent undersecretary,” and the “parliamentary undersecretary,” who normally represents the minister in parliament. The parliamentary undersecretary is in fact the deputy minister. For some strange reason, the position created for Prőhle was placed directly under the parliamentary undersecretary, although the two positions had nothing to do with one another. In fact, it was difficult to figure out exactly what Prőhle did in this ministry. In any case, now that he is becoming a museum director, the ministry decided to change the structure. Prőhle’s successor, who is coming from Századvég, will report to the undersecretary in charge of family and youth.

The move from undersecretary to museum director was a simple procedure considering that Zoltán Balog, Prőhle’s boss in the ministry, is also in charge of the Petőfi Irodalmi Múzeum. It was on his recommendation that the committee picked Prőhle. The museum, which was established in 1954, has become the most important depository of material related to Hungarian literature. For the past ten years it was headed by Csilla E. Csorba, who has written extensively on literary history and the history of art. In literary circles Prőhle’s appointment created quite a stir. What does he know about literature?

Actually, Prőhle has a degree in German and Hungarian literature, but then he moved on to Corvinus University to became a student of international relations and diplomacy. He was director of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation between 1992 and 1998, but he has no other experience running a large institution with well over a hundred employees. But, I guess, one can always learn, as he has already begun to do. Although he will start his new assignment only on January 1, 2017, he is spending the coming months getting acquainted with the work of the museum.

What are the museum’s plans for the coming years? The staff is already working on a large exhibit on the life and art of János Arany (1817-1882), for which Prőhle expects the help of the current director. But he himself has a couple of new ideas, which he apparently outlined in his application for the job. One is an exhibit on Albert Wass (1908-1998), the other on Lajos Kassák (1887-1967). An interesting juxtaposition of political and literary careers. The former is a nationalistic, anti-Semitic writer who is considered to be a literary mediocrity. The latter is a poet, novelist, painter, essayist, editor, and theoretician of the avant-garde. He was one of the first genuine working-class writers in Hungarian literature, closely associated with the socialist movement.

Prőhle’s plan for an Albert Wass exhibit raised quite a few eyebrows, given the man’s controversial reputation. But the newly appointed director defended his choice with the following spurious justification: “If a writer has so many statues in the country, we will have to do something with the phenomenon.” He wants to know why Wass has such a cult in Hungary. “Why doesn’t Dezső Kosztolányi have 200 statues and why does Wass?” For those unfamiliar with Hungarian literature, Dezső Kosztolányi (1885-1936) is one of the mainstays of twentieth-century Hungarian literature, a writer of both poetry and prose. The question Prőhle poses doesn’t belong to the world of literary inquiries. It is clearly political and sociological.

One of the more hidious Wass statues in Csepel

One of the more hideous Wass statues, in Csepel

András Bozóki, minister of culture in the first Gyurcsány government, would love to see more characters of the Orbán regime “in museums.” Péter Krasztev, a literary historian, described Prőhle as a “party soldier” who serves where he is placed. István Kerékgyártó, a writer, sarcastically noted that “actually we can be grateful for this appointment because this government could just as easily have decided to close the museum altogether because they are not interested in literature. After all, it is not a place where too much money can be found to steal.”

Finally, C. György Kálmán, a literary historian, wrote an opinion piece on Prőhle’s appointment titled “Jóindulat” (Good will), the upshot of which is that he is trying not to be suspicious and hopes that Prőhle will be satisfied sitting in his office and will not interfere with the work of professionals who know something about literature. He is also hoping, although he has some fears, that the planned exhibition on Wass will be a balanced evaluation of Wass’s work, which Kálmán considers ”abominable and junk.” It is possible that Prőhle wants to stage “problem exhibits.” In this case, the “director doesn’t want to celebrate Wass but wants to reveal the phenomenon, the cult, the damage that cult inflicts on society or perhaps the possible virtues of the writer.” But, he adds, “we have every reason to suppose that the exhibit will not deal with the Wass problem but with Wass’s celebration.”

September 11, 2016

Zoltán Balog’s Europe: Victim of outside forces

On paper Zoltán Balog, head of the ministry of human resources and an ordained Calvinist minister, should be relatively sophisticated about the world. He spent years studying in Berlin, Halle, Tübingen, and Bonn. He had many foreign friends already in the early 1980s when he was a student at the Debrecen Theological University. In fact, his first wife, whom he married at the age of 20, was an East German exchange student. Yet, when one listens to him today, he gives the impression of being comfortable only inside the borders of Hungary, geographically, culturally, and ideologically.

He got involved with Fidesz early, mostly as an adviser on matters of religion, about which Orbán and his friends knew next to nothing. His advice was especially badly needed around 1993 when Fidesz was supposed to be transformed into a Christian democratic party. This was apparently the time when both László Kövér and Viktor Orbán “found God,” a revelation in which Balog had a role to play.

For a short while Balog worked in the office of the president during Ferenc Mádl’s tenure, but otherwise his relation to Fidesz was informal. He first got extensive media coverage when, in 2006, joined by Krisztina Morvai of Jobbik, he established the Civil Jogász Bizottság (Civic Legal Committee). This group rewrote the history of the 2006 September-October disturbances. It will be a difficult task for future historians to come up with a more balanced view of those events.

By 2006 Balog was a full-fledged member of the Fidesz parliamentary caucus, and after 2010 he became part of the government. He began his government career as undersecretary in the ministry of administration and justice in charge of Roma affairs. Less than two years later he was named minister of the ministry of human resources, a mega ministry in charge of education, healthcare, sports, and culture.

A few days ago, Balog agreed to give an interview to 888.hu, a gutter internet paper published by Árpád Habony’s new media center. Despite the years spent outside of Hungary, in this interview he shows himself to be a provincial fellow.

In his view Hungary is under bombardment by antagonistic forces from the outside. The attacks are not just political but cultural as well. For example, he wants to save the country from foreign food and foreign music. What a threat it is to have all those foreign restaurants on Hungarian soil. And how sad that the recipes on Hungarian internet sites are practically indistinguishable from what appears on similar sites in Germany, France, or, for that matter, the United States. Even a strong Orbán government cannot defend Hungarians from food globalization.

Zoltán Balog explains Hungary's place in the world

Zoltán Balog explains Hungary’s place in the world

Of course, the real threats are the “concealed powers,” like Soros’s Open Society Foundation. On the surface it looks as if Hungary is a free country, but “there are people who want to make us the plaything of world powers.” When Balog suspects foreigners of giving advice, his “blood boils.” He gets mighty upset when “big international organizations keep explaining to us what we should do with the Gypsies, women, the media, the economy.” Hungarians don’t fabricate “conspiracy theories” because “it is a fact that … financial and economic powers try to influence the internal affairs of Hungary and other countries.” When the Orbán government goes against these forces, it is justified because it acts “in the defense of democracy.”

In Balog’s eyes all criticisms of the Orbán government come from selfish economic interests. But since complaining about diminished profits wouldn’t impress anyone, “they talk about the dangers threatening Hungarian democracy, Hungarians killing Gypsies, virulent anti-Semitism.” Of course, none of this is true, but in Germany “they make films in which they try to explain to children that Viktor Orbán is a dictator.”

Balog’s view of the former Soviet bloc is more than strange. Westerners, and here I assume Balog thinks of West Germans whom he knows best, often talk about “the former east,” which irritates him to no end. Every time he hears someone refer to “central Europeans” in such a way, he answers that as long as Europeans don’t also talk about the west as “the former western bloc” there will be no “common Europe.”

Balog finds the situation of the peoples of the two blocs analogous in many ways. As I understand him, Balog claims that none of the nations of Europe has been free. In the East, the Soviets foisted their political system on the countries that were “liberated” by the Soviet army in 1945. The same thing happened in the West, which the American army occupied. Westerners had to endure the Americanization of the West, just as Easterners suffered Sovietization.

I don’t know whether this is Balog’s own theory or whether he is just mouthing the ideas of Viktor Orbán. From the other topics he covers in this interview, I’m inclined to believe that this incredible idea is not his own.

And this is not the only strange idea that Balog sets out in this interview. He was always a fierce anti-communist, even in his high school years. Add to this a very strong dislike of the political elite of the Kádár regime and the Fidesz propaganda about the liberals being the communists of today, and Balog sees communists everywhere.

According to him, “people in the West are inclined to look upon the history of the last seventy years as a small episode in the area east of the Elbe,” after which we can return to the “agenda.” But the former Soviet bloc countries cannot return to something westerners may call normalcy “because the experience of dictatorship is shared” by West and East alike. Western countries have also been poisoned by communism.

Balog contends that because communism made inroads even in the United States, Bill Clinton’s claim about the United States’ gift of freedom to Poland and Hungary is false. Does this mean that democracy in the western countries is basically a sham? That they are no more democratic than the people of the former Soviet bloc? I guess this is exactly what Balog has in mind. Because by the end, he claims primacy for Poland and Hungary over the United States when it comes to the introduction of democratic principles. As he put it: “While in America they were flogging the blacks and the slaves, in Poland there was quite a democracy already. And in Hungary too.”

As for Polish democracy, I assume Balog is thinking of the infamous “liberum veto,” a parliamentary device in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth which allowed any member of the Sejm (parliament) to force an immediate end to the current session and nullify any legislation that had already been passed. It seems that Balog’s teachers didn’t explain to him that only nobles of the realm could be members of parliament and that therefore the Polish case is not a valid counterexample. As for Hungarian democracy, I have no idea what Balog has in mind. I’m afraid he doesn’t either.

June 13, 2016

Orbán and his ministers got their report cards: they all failed

In the last couple of months we didn’t hear much about the teachers’ rebellion against Viktor Orbán’s educational reforms, except that the dissatisfied teachers promised to do something after the matriculation exams ended but before the last day of the school year. Eventually, we learned that the leaders of the “Tanítanék” (I would like to teach) movement were organizing a rally at which they were planning to present the government with their own report cards.

I must admit that I was not at all optimistic that they could pull off another huge demonstration, the kind they staged on March 15. Past experience has taught us how easily enthusiasm wanes. After realizing that street demonstrations rarely have any tangible results, participants soon enough lose their appetite for these gatherings. So, I was very afraid that instead of a mass demonstration only a few hundred people would show up today on March 15 tér and that, with such a poor showing, the whole teachers’ revolt would fizzle out.

Source: Blikk / Photo: Ferenc Isza

Source: Blikk / Photo: Ferenc Isza

I was wrong. To sustain people’s interest protests don’t have to have positive results. On the contrary, a negative outcome might spur even more intensified resistance. If the government had granted some reasonable concessions, the teachers might have been appeased. But Viktor Orbán misjudged the situation and decided not just to ignore the teachers’ demands but to make the state’s stranglehold over the schools and thus over the teachers even tighter. For one thing, instead of a single KLIK, there will now be another layer of bureaucracy–57 little KLIKs.

In the last three years, since the introduction of the centralized system, at least the school buildings and their maintenance remained in the hands of the local communities. The Orbán government, however, in its eternal wisdom, came to the conclusion that they should also centralize the physical maintenance of the school buildings. So, for example, if a window gets broken, the school administration will have to apply to one of the little KLIKs, most likely miles away, for a replacement window.

Source: Blikk / Photo: Ferenc Isza

Source: Blikk / Photo: Ferenc Isza

The reaction in the community was fury. According to the union leaders, the number of people who are ready to actively participate in an anti-establishment movement has grown many times over since the government’s refusal to listen to the initial demands of the teachers. They feel cheated and have come to the conclusion that negotiating with Viktor Orbán’s minions is absolutely useless because the government representatives cannot be trusted. The trade union leaders also realized that the so-called “negotiators” on the government side don’t have a mandate to make decisions or to offer negotiating points. So, Piroska Galló, head of the Pedagógusok Szakszervezete (PSZ), announced that traditional methods of dealing with an employer, in this case the state, are useless in Orbán’s Hungary. From here on, more radical methods must be employed.

Apparently, the government decision makers were misled by the small number of teachers, only about 20%, who participated in the strike staged by the trade unions in April. Trade union leader Galló maintains that, although relatively few people took part in the strike, the trade unions’ demands were supported by a large majority of the teachers. Also, the government negotiators paid no attention to the protest of the parents who kept their children at home on the day of the strike. Their numbers were in the hundreds of thousands. They are ready to support their children’s teachers and are just as angered by the government’s reaction as are the teachers.

Mrs. Galló was right. Despite rain mixed with hail, thousands showed up in an impressive display of resolve. The government went very wrong here and still hasn’t learned its lesson. The education department, housed in the ministry of human resources, continues to think that the trade union leaders and the civic organizations of teachers will fall for the old line that “the majority of teachers believe in dialogue and not in street action and political provocation.” No, they don’t. If the teachers learned anything in the last few months, it was that negotiation with the Orbán government–alleged dialogue–is a dead end. I also believe that the charge, repeated time and again, that the “teachers are being used by anti-government forces” will only add fuel to the fire. The result is that both the trade unions and the civic “Tanítanék” group are determined to continue the fight, and with even greater force come fall.

The two leaders of the Tanítanék group are born leaders. I’m amazed at their organizational and oratorical skills. If anyone can organize a real mass movement around the teachers it will be István Pukli and Kata Törley. They promise something spectacular once schools open in September. They are already working to establish a nationwide network of activists. They began their recruitment right on the spot

One of the highlights of the demonstration was the handing out of report cards to government officials.  Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources; László Palkovics, his undersecretary responsible for education; János Lázár, head of the prime minister’s office; Lajos Kósa, head of Fidesz’s parliamentary delegation; Antal Rogán, “propaganda minister”; Szilárd Németh, one of the deputy chairmen of Fidesz; and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán all received failing grades. As the grades were read out, the crowd jeered and shouted “mocskos Fidesz” (filthy Fidesz). Of course, the greatest booing came after Viktor Orbán’s report card was read.

We should keep in mind that the popularity of Fidesz today is not what it was a few months ago. According to the Republikon Intézet, Fidesz’s popularity has fallen 8% in just one month, between April and May, among committed voters. The beneficiaries of Fidesz’s losses seem to be the smaller parties, especially the Demokratikus Koalíció (+3%) and to a lesser extent LMP (+1%) and Együtt (+1%). These results were more or less seconded by Fidesz’s own Századvég. Some spectacular show of force by the teachers might further erode Fidesz’s popularity.

For those who didn’t see István Pukli and Kata Törley on ATV, they also appeared on Egyenes beszéd ráadás (Straight Talk Extra) yesterday.

June 11, 2016

Religion is not a private matter according to the Hungarian government

A month ago Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources and an ordained Hungarian Reformed minister, ruffled the feathers of those who take the separation of church and state seriously. The occasion was a speech he delivered in Szombathely at a thanksgiving service upon the completion of a steeple for the local Hungarian Reformed church and the installation of three new bells.

Balog was present because his ministry gave a 43.3 million forint grant for the steeple and five million for the bells. When all was said and done, the 29-meter steeple cost 73 million and the price tag of the bells, which were cast in Poland, turned out to be 10 million forints. From the Népszabadság article it is not clear who paid for the cost overrun.

Balog in his speech announced that “religion is not a private matter. The confession of faith is the most personal public issue.” It is for that reason that the government considers it important to support the construction of churches. Népszabadság’s reaction to the news was “Back to the Middle Ages? According to Balog, religion is not a private matter.”

Balog’s pronouncement shouldn’t surprise anyone because the Hungarian right’s belief in a close relationship between church and state has been of long standing. The first reference I found to this “personal public” concept was Lóránt Hegedűs’s assertion in 1998 that “religion is not a private affair but the most personal public matter.” The same language Balog used. Hegedűs, the openly anti-Semitic Hungarian Reformed minister, is, after all, Balog’s colleague.

In 2006, during the heat of the election campaign, Zsolt Semjén, chairman of the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP), attacked Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, who had announced earlier that “religion is a private matter.” Semjén at this point turned to Cardinal József Mindszenty, who in 1946 had claimed that “where religion is a private matter there is corruption, sin, and cruelty.” He added that Hitler also thought that religion is a private matter and “soon enough came the Gestapo, Auschwitz, and jail.” Because of the machinations of SZDSZ politicians, an “amok-runner” was let loose on the country, who is now destroying the heritage of St. Stephen. A huge outcry followed Semjén’s accusations.

A couple of years ago members of Catholic Radio met with church leaders. During this meeting Bishop László Rigó-Kiss, one of the most reactionary Catholic bishops, expressed the church’s demand that church news should be spread widely in the media because “religion is the most personal public matter.” The same notion was expressed by Fidesz Mayor Attila Ughy of Budapest’s District XVIII, who added that for this reason the District financially supports, to the tune of 25 million forints, both Catholic and Hungarian Reformed churches.

The debate over the private versus public nature of religion has a long history. Perhaps the best known expression of the belief that religion is a private matter comes from Thomas Jefferson, who in his letter to the Danbury Baptists wrote: “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship.”

Jefferson

What led me to this topic today was a recent opinion piece by Gábor Czakó, a Catholic writer who established a separate association of Catholic journalists. The article appeared in Magyar Idők. We learn from Czakó that the Kádár regime “transformed religion, the greatest public matter, into a private affair.” It was “inspired by a liberal idea.” The Kádár regime was so successful at implanting this erroneous idea into the heads of people that even right-wing “thinkers” believe that “the Christian faith is a private matter while Islam is a way of life.” But this is not so as long as there is a “templum,” which is a community gathering place. Liberals and socialists, however, first harassed Christians and Christian churches and finally declared the Christian religion to be a private matter.

Here are a couple of historical examples of real religiosity that Czakó cites. “Who remembers nowadays that during the kings of the House of Árpád there were more than one hundred holy days when work was forbidden and even later people devoted a third of the year to God? It was the Freemason Joseph, the hatted one, that suppressed them.” Czakó is talking about Joseph II (1741-1790), who declined to be crowned king of Hungary because he refused to swear to Hungary’s feudal constitution. Therefore people called him “kalapos király,” the hatted king. According to Czakó, the “snake of liberalism” is seemingly on the winning side against God and man, but slowly people are returning to God and away from liberalism.

Nowadays talk about Christianity in Hungary often ends by asserting its superiority over Islam. Czakó points to Jesus’s teaching “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” which he claims is unique among world religions. Czakó finds clear examples of such Christian charity among Hungarian kings. His first example is St. Stephen, who successfully repelled Emperor Konrad II, whose army in 1030 got as far as Győr but had to retreat. The Hungarians even occupied Vienna. So far the story is true, but I found nothing about Hungary’s saintly king feeding Konrad’s starving troops, as Czakó claims. His second example is another incursion into Hungary, this time in 1051 by the troops of Henry III, Holy Roman Emperor. In Czakó’s story András I fed the starving German soldiers. Again, I found nothing about this great act of generosity.

Hungarian churchmen and devoted members of the Catholic and Hungarian Reformed churches categorically reject the notion of religion being at heart a private matter. This goes against mainstream thinking on the subject in western thought. Today, the overwhelming majority of people consider their relationship to God or to organized religion to be private. With the rejection of liberalism, this important tenet is being attacked in Hungary, not only by the churches but also by the government.

May 22, 2016

Fidesz heavyweights against Viktor Orbán

Who would have thought that Viktor Orbán’s decision to repeal the law on Sunday store closings would create such turmoil in government circles? Deep divisions surfaced not only between Fidesz and the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP) but also within Fidesz itself. To my great surprise some very important political leaders–like János Lázár, Zoltán Balog, and László Kövér–turned out to be such staunch supporters of this unpopular measure that they opted to stay away to avoid voting for the bill. Lázár and Balog made clear that their absence must be interpreted as a “no” vote. All three have been fined 100,000 ft. for not following the compulsory voting procedure for members of the Fidesz delegation.

We have to keep in mind is that the present Hungarian government is not a coalition. It is a “pártszövetség” (party alliance), which gives the Christian Democrats very little room for political maneuvering. The actual political strength of the party is minuscule. The party is nothing more than a political club whose largest “victory” was in 1994 when it received 5.7% of the votes. Four years later, with 2.59%, it ceased to be represented in parliament. Then, after eight years of inactivity, it resurfaced as part of Fidesz in 2006. The revival of the party and the fact that Fidesz essentially sponsored it was the result of Zsolt Semjén’s clever politicking. Once the party alliance was in place, he managed to get a fair number of government positions for KDNP members who, by the way, are often also members of Fidesz. One such person was Rózsa Hoffmann, who failed miserably as undersecretary of education. Bence Rétvári is another Christian Democrat who is now rather unsuccessfully battling with the teachers’ unions.

In addition to the failed “education reform,” KDNP had a couple of other issues they felt strongly about. One of these was the formulation of a new law on the churches. But after they put a lot of work into drafting a bill, Fidesz took over the project and completely rewrote it. The party also felt strongly about a so-called family bankruptcy law, which turned out to be so poorly formulated that after the government set aside half a billion dollars for it, only 100 families signed up. And, of course, the crown jewel of KDNP’s political agenda was the Sunday closing of retail stores. That turned out to be a failure too. Once Viktor Orbán was faced with a likely referendum on the issue, he quickly decided to repeal the legislation and reopen stores on Sunday.

In the last few weeks the Orbán government has been faced with two huge headaches: the revolt of the teachers and the upheaval surrounding István Nyakó’s referendum question. One wonders whether Viktor Orbán might not be re-weighing the benefit of having KDNP as an “ally.” At the moment it is only a pain in the neck.

I assume that Viktor Orbán is clever enough to make KDNP even more marginal in the “alliance” than it is now. The problem is that there is a cleavage even within Fidesz itself when it comes to the Sunday closing issue. As far as I can see, the Fidesz bigwigs’ opposition is not ideological as KDNP’s is. For many Christian Democratic politicians Sunday is a holy day when good Catholics are supposed to go to church. So, they look on the legislation as, at least in part, a religious issue. The Fidesz rebels apparently disagree with Orbán’s pandering to the voters. As a populist his main concern is the government/party’s popularity. If public opinion polls provided by the party’s own think tank, Századvég, indicate that Sunday store closing is not popular and that the opposition will rally the dissatisfied, it must be abolished. Apparently, it is this totally pragmatic approach that bothers László Kövér, János Lázár, and Zoltán Balog.

Viktor Orbán and János Lázar at the plenary session on Monday / MTI Photo Tibor Illyés

Viktor Orbán and János Lázar at the plenary session on Monday.  MTI / Photo Tibor Illyés

According to 444.hu, over the weekend the highest officeholders of Fidesz got together. Both Kövér and Balog expressed their strong opposition to a retreat on the issue. Their argument was based on principles. Fidesz, according to them, is a conservative Christian party which made the decision out of conviction, and it should stick with it even at the cost of a loss of popularity. On Monday, during the cabinet meeting, the debate continued. At that meeting Lázár supported Balog and posed the theoretical question: “If the people don’t want stadiums, will we start demolishing them?” A few hours later, at the meeting of the Fidesz caucus, Kövér expressed his disgust at the decision.

At the moment it is difficult to know how serious a rift we are witnessing and where it may lead. I wonder, for example, how long Orbán will put up with Lázár’s less than loyal comments and his open disagreements with the prime minister. Perhaps Lázár thinks that he is irreplaceable, but we know that nobody is. I find it interesting that on his way to the Voivodina (Serbia) last night Viktor Orbán stopped in Hódmezővásárhely to have dinner at the Lázár house. In fact, he spent the night there. I suspect this was not a social call but a heated discussion of their disagreement over fundamental issues.

Many commentators consider the repeal of the law on Sunday store closings a huge defeat for MSZP and the other opposition parties, which have been deprived of at least three months of anti-government campaigning and possible victory at the polls. This is not how László Kövér sees the retreat. He considers Orbán’s decision “a huge mistake which cannot be left without comment.” He believes that Fidesz “ceded the unattended field to the left opposition, which can now wage a bait campaign against [them].” Fidesz was unable to convince the people of the correctness of their original decision, and if they don’t do better in the future they will be in trouble at the 2018 election.

And just one more word about our inimitable László Kövér. He was outraged that women were disproportionately against the Sunday closing. He said that they should show more solidarity toward those who must work on Sundays. This interview, which originally appeared in Magyar Idők, was summarized in HVG where, unlike in Magyar Idők, people can comment. Most of the comments were negative, many expressing their dislike of Kövér. Not surprisingly many women commented. One woman wrote: “I would love to be the wife of Kövér for a short while.” To which another wrote: “Me too! Lucrezia Borgia …. :-)”

April 13, 2016